The re-education of Senator Lynn Beyak

In Canada, as in many other western countries, a guarantee against being “twice put in jeopardy” is a constitutional right. If you’ve been convicted of a crime, and you have paid your debt to society, you cannot be reconvicted of the exact same crime. 

Of course, this guaranteed right only applies to such crimes in the Criminal Code as murder, rape or kidnapping. For thought crimes, there are no such guarantees. When it comes to thought crimes, we have yet to discover the upward limit for the jeopardies that may be imposed.

A double-jeopardy fix seems to be in for Lynn Bayek, appointed to the Senate by Stephen Harper in 2013. From the heavily mixed Indigenous/non-Indigenous northern area of Dryden, Ontario, Sen Bayek is presently a non-affiliated senator. A Senate committee is poised to decree next week that even though Sen Bayek fulfilled the requirements of her penalty for an initial thought crime, she is deemed insufficiently … re-educated, let us say, and must, therefore, suffer further, much more punitive retribution. 

It is quite possible, even probable, that Sen Beyak, removed from the Conservative caucus in early 2018, and suspended without pay from Senate duties for several months in 2019, will now be suspended again without pay for the duration of this parliament, and forced to undergo further re-education concerning her problematic beliefs. 

If that happens, many of her colleagues will be glad to have this thorn in their side out of sight and out of mind for several years (barring a successful no-confidence vote in this minority government). But others—the supporters who share her convictions (and she has a few senate colleagues who do; whether they will say so publicly we’ll know in due course), as well as those who do not share her views, but do support her right to hold them —will believe a great injustice has been done.

What are Sen Beyak’s thought crimes, which used to be posted on her website, but are no longer there? Well, for one thing, she believes status Indigenous peoples should integrate fully into Canadian society. As she wrote in an open letter on Sept 1, 2017, quoted in a CBC report, “None of us are leaving, so let’s stop the guilt and blame and find a way to live together and share. All Canadians are then free to preserve their cultures in their own communities, on their own time, with their own dime.” 

Sen Beyak expressed approval of Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper on Indigenous issues, produced in collaboration with Jean Chrétien as Indian Affairs Minister, which proposed doing away with the Indian Act and treaties and eliminating a distinct legal Indian status. Sen Beyak said she felt they “got it right.” Trudeau had proposed an end to the Indian Act, with a fair, one-time settlement for individual natives, in exchange for the financial (not historical) portion of the treaties and land claims. Sen Beyak is in agreement with Pierre Trudeau’s statement, “We could mount pressure groups across this country on many areas where there have been historic wrongs. I do not think it is the purpose of a government to right the past. It cannot re-write history. It is our purpose to be just in our time.” 

Sen Beyak at this point was already in trouble for remarks in the Red Chamber considered even more heretical back in March 2017, when she criticized the Truth and Reconciliation Report for its failure of balance in its indictment of the residential school system (while conceding that there was some representation at the TRC by former residential-school students who recounted positive experiences). “I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants—perhaps some of us here in this chamber—whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part,” she said.

Sen Bayek was mocked by politicians from all parties as “ignorant” and her “hate speech” was denounced by all the liberal media. She was removed from the Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee by interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, after four years of uncontroversial service on it, and calls for her resignation filled the air. 

In Sept, 2017, Sen Beyak questioned the wisdom of the government’s decision to create a second costly Indigenous ministry. The media trashed her for it, erroneously implying in one case that Sen Bayek was not aware that Indigenous peoples were citizens of Canada. 

Compounding her alleged wickedness were controversial letters sent from supporters of Sen Bayek’s heterodox views, which she posted on her website, and refused to take down when ordered to be by Senate Ethics Officer (SEO) Pierre Legault. Some of the comments in them were indeed offensive – Sen Bayek called them “edgy and opinionated” – and even Sen Beyak’s defenders would say she showed poor judgment in choosing such a small hill to die on, so to speak. 

One letter, for example, suggested that if only people on reserves had the work ethic of the Amish, their homes would be well-constructed and safe, their resources up to standard and their communities economically self-sustaining. The latter was considered an example of “overt racism” by a Walrus writer, who accused some of Sen Beyak’s supporters of expressing “white-supremacist sentiments.” 

I find such language misleading, erroneous and quite over the top. The letter is pointing to the tragic consequences of the “learned helplessness” that is a feature of many reserves. It has been referenced time and time again by credible, sympathetic mainstream writers. The writer’s impatience with the ongoing dysfunction on these reserves may present itself in an uncomfortably blunt manner, but it most certainly does not rise to the level of hate speech. (Which doesn’t mean some of the “edgy and opinionated” letters are a good look on a senator’s tax-funded website.)

Sen Beyak is likely more naïve than a willful provocateur, but in pushing back against what she considers the sanctification of native suffering, she often shoots herself in the foot. In resisting the tendency of progressives to label everything they don’t like “racist,” she said in an interview with Legault, “In my view, there is no racism in Canada. Right now there are groups putting people into silos, trying to divide us, by saying that we have racism against violence, we have racism against Indigenous people, Ukrainian, white privilege—I find those people racist. Those who seek to divide us are the racists. The rest of us are Canadians. We all bleed the same colour, we all live together in peace and harmony. That’s the way Canada is supposed to be.” 

(Most of what Sen Beyak says here is fair comment. Unfortunately, how many Canadians will get past the words “there is no racism in Canada” without a sharp intake of breath—even those who believe the most fervently in freedom of speech? It certainly doesn’t help Sen Beyak’s case that she is a born-again Christian with all the politically incorrect views that implies.) 

In January 2018, Sen Beyak learned from a press release that she had been removed from the Conservative caucus. The press release states that “Senator Bayek admitted to posting racist letters on her website and refused to take them down when I asked her to.” Sen Beyak denied that any formal request had been made to remove the letters, and categorically denied that she was a racist or would ever “admit” that she was racist. Her website was frozen.

By alluding to Sen Beyak as a racist, Scheer opened the door for a senate inquiry request, which emerged four days after his press release. The Ethics Office report gathered snippets from the letters, some out of context and painted them in toto as referring to Indigenous people as “opportunistic, pampered whiners who are milking the government and exploiting the taxpayer.” None of the letters actually say that, but that is the impression given by the report.

On Feb 27, 2019 Sen Beyak was presented with the SEO’s preliminary report. Not included: letters from Indigenous women – one a chief – supporting Sen Beyak’s position, or any other of the hundreds of non-racist letters vigorously supportive of Sen Beyak’s views. Also omitted were declarations from journalists and academics who had read all the letters, and who found nothing racist in them, lauding Sen Beyak as well informed and objective on Indigenous issues. 

Former Manitoba provincial court judge and journalist Brian Giesbrecht for example, wrote in an April 2019 Frontier Centre for Public Policy blog post: “As far as the posted letters, the great majority provide thoughtful comments from people who have thought long and hard about the highly complex and vexing Indigenous situation.  While a few of the more awkwardly worded letters could best have been omitted, the notion that the senator’s website is teeming with hatred and racism is preposterous.” He asks and answers: “So, what is the senator’s real crime – a crime deemed so egregious that she must be humiliated, shunned, and even financially damaged and hounded out of public office?  Her ‘crime’ is refusing to go along with the politically correct version of the prevailing orthodoxy pertaining to Indigenous issues.”

On April 30th the Ethics Committee presented their harshly critical report on Sen Bayek to the Senate. It concluded that by “refusing to recognize the cultural oppression imposed by the residential School System, and the discriminatory objectives of the Indian Act, Senator Beyak appears to deny a historical truth and displays conduct that ignores its racist underpinnings.” 

Sen Beyak was directed to take an online course given by Indigenous Awareness Canada, entitled “201 Indigenous Certification.” The goal of the course was “to build effective and positive relationships with Indigenous people,” focusing on “racism towards Indigenous Peoples, Residential Schools, Chronology and Current realities.” Ms Beyak completed the course and received a suitable-for-framing “Indigenous Awareness” Certificate.

Next, the Senate retained the federally funded ($6,888,000 in 2019) Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) in Toronto to provide Sen Beyak with “cultural competency Training.” Interestingly their website describes their mission as one of service to Indigenous people in urban communities. It makes no mention of cultural competency training for non-Indigenous. Anyway, there were to be three “training cycles,” undertaken at Sen Beyak’s own expense, at OFIFC’s Toronto office, a four-hour drive from her home, on separate occasions in June and August.

Sen Beyak took the first of them last June 6th as planned, in a group setting. Cycles two and three were mutually arranged for Aug 26 and 27. When Sen Beyak arrived on Aug 26, she was taken to the training director’s office and told that training was no longer available to her. Sen Beyak reported their refusal to the SEO, who replied that he had no communication to that effect from the OFIFC. Repeated requests from Sen Bayek to the OFIFC for an explanation went unanswered.

Nevertheless, in Sept, 2019, Liberal Senator Peter Harder, a senior bureaucrat in previous Liberal governments, sent an email to Canadian Press columnist Joan Bryden, falsely stating that “Senator Bayek has so far refused to follow through on the Senate’s recommendations for remedial measures.” On Sept 24, Bryden perpetuated the falsehood in The Toronto Star that “Senator Bayek refused to take sensitivity training.”

On parting from the OFIFC after the first session, Sen Bayek told her sensitivity trainer, “We would have to agree to disagree.” Disagree with the only “correct” understanding of “reconciliation”? How puzzling and disconcerting this statement must have seemed to the trainer. That was probably the first and only time anyone sent in for sensitivity training had dared to state that in spite of paying respectful attention to the course material, she had not changed her mind

It seems clear that the OFIFC felt Sen Bayek was a lost cause, and simply abandoned her as they felt she could not be re-educated. One staffer claimed Sen Bayek had made the environment “unsafe” by claiming to identify as Métis on the grounds that she has an adopted sister of Métis provenance. Sen Bayek vigorously denies she made any such claim. Under normal circumstances it would be her word against the word of the staffer. But the SEO and the media seemed to feel such a gaffe was par for the course, and bought it without interrogation. A CBC reporter wrote:  “she told her instructors she was Métis because her parents had adopted an Indigenous child.” That should have been “she allegedly told her instructors…”

The knives are out for Sen Bayek—too many, I fear, for her to avoid more drawn blood. 

Sen Bayek has never had a fair trial. Racism, the word at the centre of the storm, has never been formally defined or debated throughout this process. The word “reconciliation” has become a cudgel to force everyone in public life to toe the line on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to say regarding Indigenous policy. Sen Bayek may speak her mind in a more unfiltered way than we are used to these days, but is that the fault of her words, or the fact that the rest of our politicians have learned the art of self-censorship so well that it is her candour alone, rather than the content of her discourse, that startles and offends?

I couldn’t help but think of Sen Bayek’s case as a macro example of what happened to Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer in a micro way when he recently spoke out in favour of law enforcement to deal with illegal Indigenous and environment activist blockaders. He was “de-platformed” from an all-leaders’ meeting with the PM. Why? Because, Trudeau said, Scheer had “disqualified” himself in having  shown a  “deliberate misunderstanding of reconciliation.” 

If Andrew Scheer is disqualified from attending a party leaders’ meeting with the PM because he failed to understand the meaning of reconciliation, then I guess I don’t understand the meaning of reconciliation either. And I guess millions of others don’t understand it as well, because that’s how many of us are in Andrew Scheer’s lane on the blockades.

And it may likewise be that millions of Canadians agree with Sen Bayek’s perspective on Indigenous relations with their fellow Canadians, including some Indigenous people. If the Senate is bent on humiliating Sen Bayek for her alleged failure to understand reconciliation, then what does the word really mean? Reconciliation is supposed to bring people together. Instead, every time someone who embraces a heterodox view of the word is punished for speaking his or her mind, it drives us apart.

Furthermore, it is not up to the Senate to declare that Sen Bayek does not understand “historic truths.” Nobody knows what historic truths are while they are living through them. In a hundred years, if the reserves are exactly as they are today, our grandchildren may well say that Sen Bayek had a more coherent vision of historic truth than Justin Trudeau and his white-privilege-intersectionality minions.

Meanwhile, let us stop calling the sessions Sen Bayek attended “sensitivity training” or “reconciliation” sessions. If someone directed to take them cannot attend and listen in good faith and still disagree with what he or she has heard without undergoing double jeopardy and a “disappearance” from public life, then let us call them what they are: maoist re-education sessions. 

Sen Bayek is no racist, any more than Jean Chrétien and Pierre Elliott Trudeau were. She has a right to hold opinions that beat against the current of conventional assumptions. Let her colleagues debate her if they don’t like her ideas. Instead, they have invited “cancel culture” into the Senate of Canada. What a dismal piece of political theatre we are witnessing, and one more giant nail in the coffin of freedom of speech.

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